In Kyoto if you’re blind it’s open season. Everyone stares. If you’re a blind foreigner they stare twice. In the great municipal Buddhist cemetery people literally run to get out of my way. I wonder which is more catching, the blindness or my outsider status. Since you scarcely see disabled people on the streets it has to be the blindness. In the reverse metempsychosis of rebirth I’m advertising what can happen if you don’t take care in this life. I know it of course. Among the superstitious I’m always a bit ghoulish. I like to scare them. Lunge into a stranger’s path and flap my arms.
I’d thought of Kyoto as a respite. I imagined it as a living network of temples and artful glories where a sore spirit might gain whatever we mean by sustenance.;I’m always doing this kind of thing, romanticizing nations or cities. In some cases this is an effect of literature. I’ll never see Dublin for what it is but always through the snail glistening of Joyce. Helsinki, the city of my youth is always Saarikoski’s town filled with urgent, sharp people puzzling out what it means to be loose in the cosmopolitan provinces and never mind that it’s never been that place. I’m a fool.
Kyoto was for me a wonderment because poets I admire had found riches there. Kenneth Rexroth, Sam Hamill, Cid Corman. I therefore imagined it was the most transparently and gently awake place on earth where you might see straight through the butterflies and see the eyes of immanence and love on a moving wing. Oh hell, that’s how I get around.
Imagine my surprise learning how peculiar and discomfiting blindness still is to the Japanese. Yes in Japan the disabled are still largely sequestered and I should have known before traveling. I sit for awhile in a temple and think about the phrase “I should have known.” When you’re walking the road lightly its not applicable. In the glory of Zen there’s no should. I restore myself with this. Enter a noodle shop and have the best soup of my life as the rain begins falling.
If I haven’t found a megatheric peace in Kyoto I have found a firmer footing in whatever it is we mean by the inner life.
I think of Sam Hamill who once said to me “there’s no real town for orphans.”
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger